Mumbai is the entertainment and commercial capital of India boasting around 13 million inhabitants spread from the slums of downtown to exclusive high rise apartments. It is described as the powerhouse of India as it generates around 5% of the national GDP & 40 % and 60% of import duties and its port handles half of the subcontinents trade. As I approached Mumbai on my last train journey I certainly felt a rush of excitement and anticipation as I saw swarms of locals riding / hanging out of local trains into the city in the fierce afternoon heat. My last train journey in India was very enjoyable and I was excited to be arriving in the home of Bollywood, Shantaram and the gateway to potential riches that cause thousand of Indians flock here daily.
Finding cheap accommodation however was a problem I soon encountered as I headed into Colaba, central area in Mumbai and home of the Gateway to India and the Taj Mahal Hotel. The cheap places seemed to be dens of iniquity and the mid range places very expensive. After an hour and half of trawling round getting very hot I opted for something in the middle for my 40 hours before I flew onto Kenya for Christmas. I duly washed up and then headed out to the first attraction on my list – India Gate.
Mumbai was originally a humble fishing settlement until the Portuguese settled in 1534 and then later the British in 1665 (who re-named the place Bombay in 1668) with the help of the British East India Company. Over the next few decades colonalisation (aka – The British Raj Years) of the area was in full swing whilst reclaiming much of the boggy land that surrounded the area and the building neo-Gothic buildings throughout the city. The British also based the railway system from here which I had enabled me to travel vast distances so cheaply. The British finally left the “Jewel in the Crown” in February 1948 and handed it back to the Hindus and in 1996 they renamed the city Mumbai meaning Earth Goddess Mother.
At the start of my travels in India I had arrived in Calcutta one of the first British settlements so it seemed fitting that I was leaving India through Mumbai one of the last British settlements. I arrived at India Gate, a very popular emblem of the city which attracts swarms of crowds both local and foreign. Here I hoped to be able to catch a boat trip to Elephata Island (to visit the massive Hindu cave temple with the three faced statue of Shiva) but unfortunately boat rides had finished that day and were closed the next day. Directly opposite the archway of triumph was the Taj Mahal Hotel, unfortunately still in various stages of construction after the bombings of the previous year and heavily guarded. Still nearly exactly a year to date after it was bombed neither justice nor the identity of the bombers has been found, although a few were suspected.
Next on my list of things to do and see was Leopold’s Café, home to many a tale from the epic book Shantaram. As I enjoyed a nice cold beer out of the heat of late afternoon I envisaged many a chapter from the book that encircled this now well hyped tourist attraction. I looked around the place to see if I could spot any of the characters from the book but all I could see were masses of Indian tourists feasting on Indian / Western food. An hour or so later I decided to head out to Chowpatty Beach, another Indian hotspot for lovers and onlookers. The beach (well some would call it a beach) is at the end of a long curving stretch of road that runs half the length of Mumbai where on this promenade thousands of locals spend their time people watching, chatting and courting. The walk along the promenade to Chowpatty is around 3km and as I got halfway round something else grabbed my attention.
On the other side of the street the masses had gathered round to watch a game of cricket between the local Police and the Firemen. A crowd of over a thousand had gathered to watch a light bit of Sunday entertainment on a well groomed and maintained cricket ground. Missing out on watching any matches the Indian National side were playing against Australia whilst I was there, it gave me the chance to watch at least one game whilst in India. I was welcomed in by the home crowd (the Police) and given a nice comfortable plastic chair and immediately questioned on the English Cricket team, the Queen, Christmas traditions and David Beckham. I was released four hours later after a thrilling game which the Firemen won by 10 runs.
I eventually made it to Chowpatty beach late but was still greeted by the craziest beach sight of my life. There were thousands of Indians camped out on the beach (bare in mind it was dark) all eating, chatting and playing games of one kind or another. There were many small and rickety man made kiddie rides dotted all over the place, hoopla (where the main prize was a bar of soap!), and loads of crazy frantic Indians pushing kids around on small bikes or cars. Dispersed in amongst all this were hundreds of food stalls selling ice creams, pancakes, lassis and Mumbai’s finest fare – bhel puri which of course I had to try. Bhel Puri is a light snack of thin fine rounds of crunchy dough (around the size of a small apple) mixed with puffed rice, deep fried vermicelli, potato and onions and topped with tamarind sauce, coriander and fresh lime.. Delicious. The party on the beach still looked in full swing as I left around 11pm as I headed back to the hotel for sleep.
The next day I wanted to do a grand tour of many of the sights and sounds of Mumbai, I ventured to India gateway where I was assured that I would be able to get a tour bus around the city. Typically there was nothing available bar a number of taxi drivers willing to do it for a ridiculous price. I then decided to pick a few sights to see on my own. I hopped in a tuk tuk to hopefully get to Mani Bhavan somewhat quicker than walking, being 5km away. In fact the tuk tuk drive was about as fast as Sachin Tendulkar playing for a draw with 3 days to go and an hour later we arrived with him demanding more money for getting lost, getting to one of Mumbai’s most important sights.An argument later he left in a trail of abusive words with no extra cash.
Mani Bhavan was Gandhi’s home in Mumbai and is a Mecca for Gandhi fans alike. It is a small and engrossing house where he grew up and charts his life through pictures, documents and amusing models. Many of India’s most important struggles happened from here – Independence from Britain, Salt Tax Marches, his time in South Africa where he was jailed and the founding of the modern day Indian flag to name a few. I spent over 3 hours here looking at many of the documents (including a letter to Hitler) and admiring the simple existence he had to encourage and lead his fellow Indians.
After the museum I headed down to Crawford Markets to browse through a few more stalls and antique shops, textile shops and food stalls during the afternoon heat. I found a few more gifts before having to traipse half way round the city to find a DHL office that spoke English. The markets were great, busy, noisy, smelly and full of colour. With the day drawing to a close and not much left to do I decided to get my last Indian meal before Africa. I indulged on a banquet of my favourite Spicy Butter Chicken and garlic Nan and a Channa Dhal, a great meal to end my trip. My flight was leaving at 1am so I also managed to head to cinema to watch a late showing of the mediocre Avitar in 3D before heading to airport.
So as I headed out to the airport I was actually filled with sadness to be leaving India through all the turmoil that had gone on but filled with anticipations to be visiting a new totally new continent. India had been amazing if not exhausting and all of what I expected and so much more. Indians are by far the most craziest race of people I have met so far, everything is so busy, so much bureaucracy, so beautiful, so much head wiggling, so noisy, so dirty, so smelly! The food, the people and the sights are by far the most memorable aspect and impression that India left on me. I never touched any Western food the entire time I was there, not for the lack of it but mainly for the love of truly great Indian food. They say you fall in love with India once you leave, which is true as you soon forget the madness that surrounds the amazing country. For me it was like a roller coaster ride, thrilling most of the time, scary at some points and although glad of the finish to give your heart time to rest wanting to experience it all over again. Next Stop Africa.